On the last day we got to hang out, the kindergartner I work with came in from recess bouncing. I watch out for him on the playground, making sure he has lots of time to be goofy but that he doesn’t start a revolution of five-year-olds refusing to come in when the whistle blows. On Fridays my job is (was? I don’t want to think about this in the past tense) easier because it’s hot lunch day, but then he books it inside while I struggle to keep my speed-walking from becoming a full-on sprint, quietly calling after him “No parkour-walking feet, walking feet!” By the time I catch up with him and have folded myself into the tiny chair next to his desk, he’s bopping his head chomping on his first bite, declaring through a mouthful of chicken fingers, “I did good today!”
“Oh absolutely, dude. That’s going in the report.” I’ll circle a big smiley face on the daily form.
“It’s supposed to be filled in, not circled.”
“You’re right, my man, I forgot.”
On Mondays, without the lure of once-a-week fast food, the way I got him to cheerfully come inside from the playground was by switching up the enamel pin I would put on the lanyard for my employee ID, covering it up with my hand and asking if he had noticed which one I was wearing. He would giggle and shake his head “no”. The rules of our game meant I wouldn’t reveal which pin I was wearing until we got all the way to the classroom. On Mondays, and Mondays only, we would walk in together at a leisurely pace, his eyes squinting in a smile locked onto me until I removed my hand for the big reveal right inside the classroom doorway.
The last Monday I worked he was absent, home sick with super-ordinary-for-small-kids-in-the-spring croup. I was home with the same ordinary virus the next few days and then? Then school was over for the year.
I miss the routine of changing my pin once a week. I miss taking thirty seconds each Monday morning to let him know that we are a team bound together by games and silliness and affection. I miss picking out which one would seem like a good-enough surprise, a good-enough reward for coming in from outside. That last Monday the pin I had put on was Dory, the blue tang, swimming in her coffee pot. It’s my favorite, and his favorite, too, and the first pin he noticed that set off our game.
I’m not changing it until I see him again.
This was a piece I wrote this week as an assignment from the Steppenwolf Education Department-for Maker May they had a two part webinar with essayist Samantha Irby and Ian Belknap of Write Club discussing and developing Live Lit-pieces that are meant to be performed. Maybe I’ll eventually figure out how to post a video here as well, to adhere better to the spirit of the assignment! These were written and revised with a two minute limit in mind, about something from before lockdown that you miss terribly. I want to thank them so much for everything. It was a welcome change of pace, and some of the only new writing I’ve been able to get myself to do. Incidentally, my eleven-year-old had an almost identical writing assignment for his online classes this week. Although his video conference was, like, his twentieth, and mine was my first.
I wrote this several years ago. Every winter day when I drove my children to school after Sandy Hook, I felt my chest tighten wondering if this would be the last time I saw them. I wouldn’t turn and walk away until I saw them safely in the building, knowing I would never live past the regret of not looking after them until the last possible second if they should die that day. I parked on a different street, walked a different route after that Friday in December, anxiety and magical thinking working together to make me believe that I was somehow protecting them by avoiding the things I did that day, the day small children were murdered in their school. A few months later the incident described below happened.
I think a few differences have happened over the last few years that make this story a time capsule of fear and hope that don’t carry over to today.
When this story took place, though I was scared, I felt that many good people were trying to figure out how to prevent mass shootings from happening again. I felt confident that every other mother and father in the country was feeling the weight on their hearts as I was. I was wrong. There were some very evil people who value money over children’s lives who have been operating covertly assuring that nothing-not even prior domestic abuse charges-got in the way of gun manufacturers selling more guns. Concealed carry became the norm in even blue states like Illinois. Open carry became the norm in red states like Texas. There is little to prevent any American from gathering as much ammunition and as many guns as a terrorist organization might procure. The mass shootings got even worse.
When this story took place I thought that we were starting to dismantle toxic masculinity. I thought we were turning a corner on how we raised our boys into men, that we were starting to assure them both that they were allowed to feel pain and that they were not allowed to use violence on their fellow human beings-that it wasn’t weakness to have feelings and it wasn’t a show of strength to abuse those within their world. Maybe this is a violent death rattle that will destroy so much more before these toxic ideas finally expire. I was a teacher. I had a firm belief that we had power to help change the lives of young men who could have turned to violence and enacted interventions to stop them. I still believe we can, but I do not believe there are enough people who want to find out how anymore. The young boys we had a chance of changing are now violent young men with more capacity to kill that we did nothing to dissuade.
When this story took place, I thought my fear could be contained by the idea of a school lockdown, that if I pinned my fears to this one location in space and time it wouldn’t infect the rest of my world. That the healthy white blood cells I had would route my panic and grief if I could stop it from spreading. Shootings have happened everywhere and the infection has spread. My white blood cells have given up; the infection has spread so far that I have forgotten what it was like to be fighting for my health and almost winning.
This story is both tinged with more fear than I now feel, because resignation has subsumed my alarm, and more hope than I now feel, because change I thought was coming was never on its way at all.
I never thought I would wish to be able to have the feelings in this story again. Once I get something so ugly on paper I hope to have flung the feelings that inspired it far away from my body. I now wish they still felt like they were a part of me.
There are red and white lights flashing as I pull into the parking lot, but no sirens. I go to stand in the cold with the other parents, waiting for our preschoolers to be released. They are not. A police car has come to silently join the fire truck and ambulance that are already here, and we realize that the children are in lockdown. This isn’t a drill.
“I knew they shouldn’t have put the little ones in a junior high.” The first parent among us starts to express our fears. I nod, almost imperceptibly, as I always thought it was strange to put three to five-year-olds in the same building as teenagers. It was a temporary solution to a space shortage, but an odd one. One that had already scared us, but we couldn’t protest as we were lucky to be getting services at all with so many budget cuts.
We sit stand quietly, tensed and staring at the door that won’t open.
“It’s been five minutes.”
I try to steady my breathing and hope against hell that the children don’t suspect that anything unusual is happening. That they are huddled in their coats and mittens and backpacks in a corner, following their teacher’s directions to stay silent and still. I am able to calm myself for a moment knowing that they always listen to her, even though they are squirmy tiny people.
“It’s been ten.”
We shift lightly back and forth on cold feet, trying to warm ourselves. Or maybe we are getting ready to spring. There are about forty of us who are realizing what it means to be the ones locked out: we can’t do anything to protect them. I fantasize about scooping up my thirty-five pound child and running, though I know that isn’t what you are supposed to do. And where could I possibly go to get far enough away? We are all listening, hoping that nothing unusual punctuates the silence inside the school.
The woman who first spoke up has a little boy who, at the end of each school day, runs straight for her laughing, yelling “Mommy!” She catches him up and swings him high into the air and lets him fall into her arms. Every day. She speaks again, “He had a twin sister. She had a hole in her heart and she died, as a baby.” More quietly she adds, “Nothing else can happen to him. To us.”
I finally use my words to dampen the panic in my throat. I say something about how it will be all right. I say something about how I know about these things, because I was a teacher. I was a teacher who handled these hormonal, dangerous teenagers for a long time. I knew they could be good and kind, and lonely and angry and confused. I tell them about how we handled a six-foot tall boy who brought a very large knife to school. Without injury. Without harm. And that the boy eventually came back and was welcomed and never hurt anyone. I say something about protocol, and drills, and empathy, and vigilance, and dedication. And redemption.
“It’s been fifteen minutes.”
I want to shatter the glass of the doors that won’t open and run to the room where I know my youngest is and be there with him. In case anything happens, it won’t happen without me. It can’t. I want to whisk him away from everyone else in the world forever. I want to put myself between him and everything. Where no one can get to him except through me, and he will not get to anyone else without my intervention.
Doors far from us open, and one slim boy is escorted out by four police officers. Silently, they box him in. He is in handcuffs, but his arms are not held to keep him from running away. He won’t. His face is the same as my six-foot tall boy’s.
The doors in front of us swing open and my preschooler is at my side. I grab his face in my hands to see that he is smiling, not worried. I hoist his thirty-five pounds against my hip, and realize how hard it would have been to run carrying him. And how impossible it would have been to know that I was locked away from him, and not even given the chance to try.
I have an essay today at The Rumpus called Finding Shelter (you can click on the title to link to it).
It is about a hurricane evacuation in Texas, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina had decimated New Orleans. It is also about my inability to really be there for another person, and my realization that I needed to become better, to do better.
I am very proud of this piece. It is a longer one, and has been harder to place. I am so grateful it has found a home.
P.S. There are some really neat original illustrations by Clare Nauman that go along with it that I just LOVE!